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Broadcasting vs. Listening

Scrolling through my Twitter stream the other night, I saw two tweets from my friend and colleague, Sgt. Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Service. Attending the Social Media in Emergency Management conference in Toronto (#SMEMTO), Tim observed:

“I'm very concerned every time I read statement, "Stop broadcasting" in #SM. You can't start a conversation if you don't broadcast.... Broadcast, listen / listen, broadcast. It's a communication circle that has no beginning and no end when done properly.

The word “broadcasting” is a throwback to radio and television signals, the one-to-many communications that cannot, by their nature, involve audiences in conversation. In social media, these are obvious: the Twitter account with nothing but news links, the blog or YouTube channel with plenty of content but few comments.

Tim's point makes sense when you consider that conversation has to start somewhere, with someone saying something: sharing an opinion or a fact. This has traditionally always been the function of a radio or TV broadcast: to start conversations—even if the originator never participates—to get people thinking and talking and perhaps even doing.

However, it is a mistake to assume the same of social media, channels that are designed to use the Internet to facilitate natural human interaction. Nowadays, because the “broadcaster” can listen to and participate in the conversation, that's exactly what the audience expects them (you) to do (and where the rather overused phrase “Join the conversation!” comes from).

At the same time, however, the term “conversation” brings to mind something random. The best conversations—the natural, free-flowing ones that can last for hours without seeming that long—jump from point to point, topic to topic, a loop based on how each participant frames and interprets the other's statements and questions.

When a police department or officer needs to be able to stay “on message,” this kind of conversation can seem overwhelming and risky. It is no longer just between the officer and another person or two; it's between the officer and an entire community. Opinions and needs vary widely, and the officer's statements could be interpreted in any way, for better or worse.

Little wonder, then, that so many agency accounts stick with “broadcast only” messaging: it's safe, it doesn't require a lot of thought or attention, and therefore it doesn't require a lot of time.

Yet it also misses an opportunity to close what could be an important feedback loop. While certain conversations can distract and divert people from a task at hand (again, for better or worse), some conversation is necessary to identify problems and solutions. And to do that, again, someone has to start talking.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this comes from the criminal justice sphere itself. Last year the Casey Anthony trial broadcasts got a lot of people talking—and, in activity that went far beyond “joining the conversation,” Anthony's defense attorneys, working with consultants who carefully monitored millions of tweets, used those conversations to change up their courtroom strategies.

Think about that. In the past, the producers of radio and TV shows had only crude ratings and advertising metrics to gauge what their audiences thought of their programming; those metrics drove their decisions to begin, change, or cancel. Nowadays, the gauges are in real time, a constant flow of communication (or lack thereof) that can guide and shape in equally real time.

Put that way, Tim's statement about broadcasting isn't about the one-to-many drone we see all too often on Twitter or Facebook; it's about the conversation starters that focus attention on specific problems, that get people thinking and talking, and enable police to listen and refine their approach.

That's communication strategy, and while it requires planning, it's the only way to avoid both pure broadcasting and diversionary conversation.

Are you broadcasting? Don't assume that “social media doesn't work” if you are; instead, understand that being ignored is in itself a form of feedback, and figure out how you might adapt. Pay attention to how your community members are interacting. Ask what they want to see from you. Take small steps. Don't “join the conversation” so much as “build your relationships.” That is the true nature of social media.


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About The Author:

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at